For the broader public, the idea that reading and math standards should be the same across the country is so sensible that to make the case for the Common Core, you sometimes first have to explain that common standards don’t already exist. When people outside education hear that they don’t, the usual response is, “Well, that’s just silly!” Yet across the country, the fight over this common sense idea is burning dollars by the millions.
What’s going on? Through the more than two decades it took for states to create their own standards, then work together to create the Common Core, none of us talked about what matters most to parents. We’ve sold the policies to institutional insiders, but really haven’t engaged the broader public. Over all that time, we’ve created a professional vocabulary that’s so dense that we’ve totally obscured an idea that should be infinitely sellable. We make the pitch by talking all about the importance of accountability systems, evaluation systems, improved assessments—all things that cause the public to yawn.
To understand why we aren’t connecting, let’s look first at the one segment of the public with whom the prevailing case for standards works. Phrases such as “assessment and accountability systems” do resonate with business leaders, especially in traditional business fields. Why? For most large businesses, the quality of a state’s schools is a huge consideration: it’s the pipeline to good employees. Business leaders are reassured that school systems will deliver if they believe they’re well managed. Plus, we’re talking their language. So, while talking about how standards lead to better-managed school systems is wonky, it’s wonky language that works with business: it’s familiar and hooks into a motivating value in the business community.
Regular people don’t speak this kind of wonk. And parents don’t give much thought to how schools are managed, which is how we’ve tended to make the argument for the need for standards: to improve how schools operate. There’s no need to talk about “accountability systems” to sell standards to parents: they appreciate standards and tests simply as tools to reassure them that their children are making progress. Parents want to talk about their kids and how they are doing. They want peace of mind and they get that from a common measure. If we raised the idea of management systems at all, it’s a lot like their first reaction to standards: “You mean they’re not doing that already?”
To parents, schools are places—ideally safe, close, convenient and happy places—where their kids have a relationship with a teacher. Accountability isn’t a “system,” it’s a basic value. Even when parents say they know their schools aren’t as good as they’d like them to be, they still trust their teachers. If we want to get back to the common sense head nod that common standards in core subjects should elicit, we need to start talking in ways that resonate with those values.
The good news? There’s great work being developed all across the country to find more effective ways of engaging the public about why common standards matter. Conservatives for Higher Standardsand Stand for Children’s Get 2 Core both are chock-full of great resources. TN SCORE’s Expect More Achieve More campaign was one of the earliest campaigns in the PIE Network and SCORE’s team has done a lot to help others build campaigns too. Advance Illinois’ Real Learning for Real Life campaign has been so widely admired that the Partnership for Learning (WA) borrowed their tag for its Ready Washington campaign. And the Alabama GRIT campaign that just launched this week might be the first time in my life I’ve actually loved an education acronym. At PIE Network we’re also developing resources that will add a layer to the conversation; we’re releasing those next month.
Too often, we in education tend to think effective communication with parents and the public is simply a matter of translating complex policy positions into smaller words. With that approach, we don’t just fail to communicate, we also risk patronizing the audience we most need to reach. Great communication starts with listening, identifying the values of the people we are hoping to engage, then finding effective ways to speak directly to those values.
Suzanne Tacheny Kubach is the Executive Director of the PIE Network. She has a BA in communications that she mucked up with a PhD in education policy. She was an advocate for the business community, then a policy maker when California implemented its first assessment aligned to its state-developed standards, so was fully complicit in the creation of the bad language that’s now giving us all grief. For this, she humbly apologizes and is working to make amends.